Shelters are defenseless against the spread of COVID-19

By: - March 16, 2020 6:19 am
homeless shelter

Michael Dabney eats dinner at a temporary shelter in northeast Minneapolis in March 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

At 7 o’clock on a recent evening, people began filing into the basement of a church in northeast Minneapolis for a free dinner of lasagna, green beans and corn.

Staff from the church had cleaned all the surfaces with disinfectant wipes and placed bottles of hand sanitizer on each of the round folding tables. Those are the tools they have to prevent COVID-19 — the disease caused by a new coronavirus — from spreading among the 70 or so homeless men and women who eat and sleep there each night.

Christine Erickson, who’s been staying at the shelter since it opened last month, said she’s trying to wash her hands more but doesn’t let herself worry too much about the virus.

“What can you really do if someone here gets sick?” Erickson said. “The more you worry, the more you’re going to weaken your own immune system.”

Minnesota’s homeless population is at a higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. Ten percent of Minnesota’s homeless population is older than 55 and about half suffer from chronic physical health conditions. People who are homeless also struggle to get a full night’s sleep and find healthy foods to eat, which takes a toll on the immune system.

As the coronavirus spreads like wildfire across the country, homeless shelters are like tinderboxes. Meals are eaten communally. Dozens of people sleep in the same room on cots or beds just a few feet apart. The turnover at shelters also means people come in contact with new people every night. In the morning, people must pack up their things and find somewhere to spend the day, which is becoming increasingly difficult as libraries and other public places close.

“There’s a lot of talk of people staying home. When people are homeless, that isn’t an option,” said Monica Nilsson, the director of the shelter. “Our community has decided not to fund shelters to be open during the day, and so we close hundreds of beds each morning and put people out into the public, whether they are sick with the cold or flu or coronavirus.”

If and when COVID-19 does spread through shelters, hospitals will become further strained because homeless people will have no better place to go.

monica nilsson
Monica Nilsson runs a temporary shelter for 70 people out of two churches in northeast Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Over dinner, Nilsson told the room she had gone to three Target stores that day and been able to find some cold medicine and cough drops if anyone was feeling sick. They didn’t have anywhere for people to go to be quarantined, but she said she and other shelters were working on it.

“There’s an effort to identify places for people to go in the event that they are diagnosed with the virus,” Nilsson said. “Of course, there are not tests for us to be tested yet, but there is that effort happening.”

Michael Dabney, a 54-year-old resident of the shelter, was recently discharged from the hospital and is trying to stay healthy.

“So I stay cleaning,” Dabney said. “And then I just try to stay away from the other people who are coughing. I’ve always been doing that because I suffer from congestive heart failure and chronic asthma.”

Dabney hopes to find a place of his own before the shelter closes at the end of April.

This shelter — hosted by neighboring Elim Church and Strong Tower Church — is one of about two dozen projects that received support from a $4.9 million fund aimed at expanding shelter capacity this winter. The philanthropic boost was able to create about 350 additional shelter beds across the state, although it meets just a fraction of the need. More than 1,600 people are without shelter in the state, living in places unfit for habitation, according to the most recent Wilder survey.

Without another influx of cash, those beds will disappear this spring, placing people already at a high risk of communicable diseases in an even more precarious situation. An outbreak of Hepatitis A has been spreading among homeless people for nearly a year.

Shelters could decide to limit the number of people they serve in order to allow for social distancing, but given that there are already too few shelter beds, it’s a choice no one wants to make.

“We don’t ever want to turn anyone away,” said Sasina Samreth, who supervises an overnight drop-in center in Minneapolis run by the American Indian Community Development Corporation. “It means they’re going to be outside. That’s terrible.”

Catholic Charities, the largest shelter operator in the Twin Cities, also doesn’t plan to limit its services, said Laurie Ohmann, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Catholic Charities serves nearly 2,000 people across the Twin Cities in its shelters and supportive housing. They recently spent an extra $50,000 on items like hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and face masks. Ohmann says she’s monitoring the delivery status closely, and hopes it comes on time.

They’ve also begun letting people spread out into the lobby of their St. Paul shelter, but their hundreds of bunk beds are bolted to the floor and can’t be moved.

“We’re trying to encourage people to sleep head to toe,” Ohmann said.

loves and fishes
A volunteer distributes free meals with Loaves and Fishes in Bloomington in March 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Government and non-profit agencies that work with homeless people plan to meet Tuesday to hash out how they can best respond to an outbreak of COVID-19 and if there’s any way they can acquire additional space to shelter people. Nilsson said she scouted an empty nursing home that could be used to quarantine sick people.

Shelters also have to think about how to keep their staff from getting sick. They’re already facing a shortage of help; volunteers are following the advice of health officials and staying home.

“We need to be here, where people are coming to us for help,” Ohmann said. “We’re seeing some volunteers who are opting out of coming in out of an abundance of caution, which makes sense, but it’s another issue that we will have to work through.”

Although shelters have not had to close, fears of COVID-19 have forced some outreach organizations to scale back at a time when they expect demand to rise.

The non-profit Loaves and Fishes, which serves 3,500 free meals across the state every day, is being forced to shut down its operations in Bloomington and Eagan. Brooklyn Center is also forcing Loaves and Fishes to shutter but will allow take-home meals.

“What worries me is that a lot of senior citizens will become isolated without food and without company,” said Cathy Maes, the executive director of Loaves and Fishes. “I’m also concerned that they could come to our site and get sick. So I’m in between a rock and a hard place.”

The organization will continue operating at all of its other locations so long as they have enough volunteers to show up and help. Limiting operations also brings financial concerns. Maes says she’s had to postpone two fundraisers and must find work for her hourly employees who would normally work at the shuttered locations.

At the last meal being served in Bloomington on Friday, Marilyn Ford picked up an extra bag of rolls to take home with her.

She’s a retired oboe player, who lives off Social Security and a pension from her musicians’ union. She eats dinner served by Loaves and Fishes a few times a week, where she’s made friends.

“It’s going to be harder to get meals,” Ford said.

She hasn’t been able to stock up on food. Next week, she plans to drive to Loaves and Fishes’ Richfield site, assuming it’s open.

“There are going to be a lot of people that are going to be hurting,” Ford said. “A lot of them are worse off than me.”

Shelters say they need donations of cleaning supplies, money and volunteers. You can find phone numbers to shelters in your area here. Call and ask what they need.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.